The Theory of Environmental Determinism: Meaning and Examples

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Environmental Determinism: Meaning and Examples

Environmental determinism is a theory put forth in the 19th century, that proposes that the geographical and physical attributes of an environment shape the development of the indigenous human societies. Learn more about this concept through this ScienceStruck post.

Curiously enough man’s body and his mind appear to differ in their climatic adaptations.
Ellsworth Huntington

The theory of environmental determinism is a geographical concept that helps to explain the effect of physical, geographical conditions on the human societies prevalent in the same region. The first-ever mention of this concept dates back to the 5th century medical treatise ascribed to Hippocrates. During the time of the Roman empire, the Greek geographer asserted that climate influenced the psychological disposition of the race of people inhabiting that area.

In 1377, the Arab sociologist and polymath, Ibn Khaldun also adhered to this concept and proposed that the differences between different people, whether nomadic or sedentary, including their customs and institutions were a direct result of their physical environment-habitat, climate, soil, food. The environmental conditions also influenced the different ways in which the people of the communities were forced to satisfy their needs and earn a living. This concept gained momentum in the 19th and 20th century when it was recognized as a central theory in the field of geography and anthropology.


❒ It is the belief that the physical environment coupled with the geographical features influence and may even cause or limit the development of the social culture of the indigenous communities of people. In essence, the environment dictates all the aspects of the realms of life and society present in it.

Environmental Determinism and Early Geography

❒ Despite its fairly recent addition to the formal study of geography, it has been described and mentioned all throughout historical texts dating back several centuries.

Philosopher Plato


It was claimed by prominent philosophers like Strabo, Plato, and Aristotle, to be the crucial element in helping to explain why the Greek civilization was so prosperous and developed as compared to its counterparts in other parts of the world.

Portrait of Aristotle


Aristotle further expounded on this theory by setting up a climatic classification system that explained why civilizations and societies were limited to establish and grow in only certain areas of the world.

Other philosophers also proposed that the physical conditions not only decide the features of the society but also the physical features of the people of that society.

❒ Al-Jahiz, a writer and scholar, was also a proponent of this theory, and used it to explain the origin of different skin colors. According to him, the dark-colored skin observed in case of African people and various animals, birds, and insects found there was a direct consequence of the highly abundant presence of black basalt rocks on the Arabian Peninsula.

Ibn Khaldun

Ibn Khaldun

❒ The topic of skin color was further expounded on by the Ibn Khaldun in his writings. During his lifetime (1332-1406), he authored a complete world history and explained in it that the dark color of human skin owes its origin to the hot and harsh climate of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Environmental Determinism and Modern Geography

❒ This concept gained popularity and rose to prominence among academic circles during the 19th century, after being revived by the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel. This academically acclaimed theory, hence was incorporated in the field of geography as a central and vital theory of human anthropological development.

Portrait of Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

The revived theory presented by Ratzel was introduced soon after Charles Darwin had presented his manuscript titled “Origin of Species” in the year 1859, and hence was influenced to a great extent by the concept of evolutionary biology and the impacting interplay between the environment and the cultural evolution of the society.

❒ This theory was introduced in the United States in the early 20th Century by one of Ratzel’s student, Ellen Churchill Semple, who was a professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Yet another of his students, Ellsworth Huntington, also helped in the introduction of the concept in the US, where it became quite popular. He worked on the theory in an attempt to further explore its implications and scope, and this eventually led him to discover a subset of the theory, which he named as climatic determinism.

❒ This subset posited that the economic development and prosperity of a particular country can be calculated based on its distance from the equator. He believed and claimed that the temperate climates and the hard living that it afforded due to the short crop growing seasons stimulated the population to strive towards achieving economic growth and efficiency. In contrast, the easy nature of agriculture in the tropical climates was the major factor hindering their advancement.

The Decline of Environmental Determinism

❒ Despite all the popularity and success gained by this theory, it was dismissed in the 1920s on the basis of making incorrect claims. One of the main critics of this theory, Carl Sauer claimed that this theory would lead investigative geographers and anthropologists to make premature generalizations that would generate a unfounded prejudice or bias about the people or culture of a region. This would not allow one to make objective observations and hence compromise any form of research.

❒ While this theory has now been discarded and replaced by better explanations for cultural evolution of societies, it is still deemed significant, as it marks the first attempt of geographers to explain the developing social patterns among humans all over the world.

Examples of Environmental Determinism

Philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

★ Niccolo Machiavelli proposed that certain political arrangements could be produced by manipulating certain elements of culture (religion), and these arrangements possessed strategic advantages.

★ Sociologist Max Weber claimed that for the benefit of an economy and for the purpose of economic growth, the cultural aspects of the population were crucial.

★ The emergence of flourishing ancient civilizations (cultural hearths) along the banks of major rivers, e.g, Egyptian civilization along the river Nile.

★ Different cultural differences among people of different countries regarding clothing, food, cultural norms, etc.

By the advent of 1950, the theory of environmental determinism was discarded and replaced by the theory of environmental possibilism, which is contradictory to its predecessor because it claims that while the environment may be a limiting factor for the progress of a cultural society, there exists a possibility to overcome this limitation via the appropriate application of knowledge, skill, technology, and money.

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